CHICO, Calif. — It was raining heavily when Socialist Workers Party members from Oakland arrived at the Chico Walmart parking lot here Nov. 29. Our goal was to extend solidarity with survivors of the Camp Fire camped out here and to tell their story to workers worldwide in the Militant.
Scores of tents were still up, even though Walmart bosses had threatened to close down the encampment a week ago. Those here are mainly from Paradise, Magalia and Concow — the three towns that were almost completely obliterated by the wildfire, the deadliest in California history. Over 80 people were killed.
Most of what the survivors have — from their tents, to the pallets that keep them off the ground, to their clothes, food and other provisions — were donated or paid for by workers in the area.
Everybody living here had been pushed to relocate to one of the six official shelters set up in the area. But many refused to go, pointing to the Norovirus outbreak that has infected several of the shelters, fear of being separated from their pets and other reasons.
When we showed people the Militant with its article on the social catastrophe resulting from the Camp Fire — “California Wildfire Carnage Is Product of Capitalist Rule” — it got nods of approval. “I agree with that headline,” 26-year-old Joseph Cook said.
The dog-eat-dog profit drive at the heart of the capitalist system means the bosses and bankers toss aside safety and workers’ interests to squeeze out the biggest return. This is what shapes priorities and morals for the construction bosses, insurance bloodsuckers, utility bosses, and the politicians they control, while workers pay the price.
Cook said that he was an agricultural worker born and raised in Paradise. He was staying in a tent with his twin brother who rescued their disabled mother from the fire. “We plan to go back and rebuild,” Cook said. “There is a lot of spirit, life, and camaraderie among the survivors.”
Mark Kinsey, 57, a former iron worker and employee at a welding shop in Paradise, explained that most people in the city got no warning of the coming calamity. “I did the warning. I was the one who called people I knew and got them out of town,” he said. “The politicians did nothing.”
We ran into Matt Montgomery, 59, a retired chemical engineer, and his wife Donna, just outside the door of the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters here. The Montgomerys are from Concow. They had also survived a 2008 wildfire that destroyed their old home and much of that town. This experience helped them survive the Camp Fire.
“We were sleeping late,” Matt Montgomery said. “Donna is recovering from open-heart surgery and needed her rest. A friend tried to reach me and the phone rang at 8:30 a.m. I didn’t answer it but it woke me up. I saw the house had an orange glow.”
“We immediately got up and grabbed the pets and put a few things together,” Donna Montgomery said. “We ran outside. There were 30- to 40-foot flames in the backyard. I drove the Jeep, Matt got into our Sierra pickup, and we took off.”
“We had to turn the headlights on. It was pitch black on account of the smoke,” Matt said. “As we drove we got people to jump into the back of the truck.”
Eventually they reached a fire truck that was blocking the road. “A CalFire bulldozer started to clear the land near us,” he said. “Once the land was clear enough to get past the fire truck, we took off again. There still were 30- to 40-foot flames. People don’t realize that you can drive through flames if you go fast enough and the road is clear.”
The Montgomerys said they were very proud that they helped get to safety a number of Spanish-speaking workers they ran into. “One guy told us that a white man had never treated him as good as I did,” Matt said.
Utility bosses seek to escape blame
Giant Northern California utility company PG&E is coming under heavy criticism because of its history of putting profits before safety in previous wildfires, including the Santa Rosa fire last year, as well as its likely role in starting the Camp Fire.
Federal Judge William Alsup has been assigned to monitor PG&E’s “safety culture” since the company was convicted on felony charges of criminal negligence in the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that leveled more than 35 homes and killed eight people. The judge is demanding PG&E provide answers concerning the company’s actions in a series of other fires.
Alsup got the assignment as part of the five-year “probation” PG&E was sentenced to in the killings. Probation for eight deaths!
Alsup told the utility bosses they had until Dec. 31 to give “an accurate and complete statement of the role, if any, of PG&E in causing and reporting the recent Camp Fire in Butte County and all other wildfires in California since the judgment herein.”
While workers are camped out in the Walmart parking lot in the rain, in disease-stricken shelters, or put up by relatives or friends, PG&E has already been bailed out by the state government from judgments in lawsuits by the victims of its profit-driven negligence and disdain in earlier fires, like the Santa Rosa wildfire. State officials have held that the utility management is responsible for at least 17 of 21 major fires in Northern California last fall.
Moves are underway in the legislature to extend a law passed earlier this year that allows PG&E bosses to cover lawsuit judgments by imposing higher fees on customers to cover the Camp Fire. After the plan was announced, PG&E stock — which had taken a hit — began to rise.
Some workers and others are demanding PG&E be forced to open its books to public inspection.